On the quiet, Leicestershire has quite a good line in castles. There’s Kirby Muxloe, Ashby-de-la-Zouche, and if you don’t mind 19th-century architecture masquerading as something else Belvoir Castle stands on the site of a Norman fortification. Despite this, not many people know that the city of Leicester has its own castle.
Nestled in the corner of the Roman city near the River Soar, the castle was built in the 11th century. It was held by the Earls of Leicester until 1265 when Simon de Montfort was defeated at the battle of Evesham, and the castle came under royal control. As tends to happen, later urban development has disguised the castle. You wouldn’t know it to look at its reworked exterior, but the great hall dates from the 12th century. In fact when Leicester Castle was slighted in the 1170s after the Earl of Leicester rebelled against Henry II, the hall was left untouched. That’s where my particular interest lies.
It is the great hall, where the Parliament of Bats was held in 1426, that is the subject of some recent news. In a nice piece of historical symmetry, a recent development has the effect of bringing De Montfort back to the castle.
Rather than this being another internment along the lines of Richard III (who will be buried in Leicester in late March), the university bearing the earl’s name has leased the great hall from the city council and will be turning it into a business school.
As recently as 1992 the building was used as a courthouse, but since then it’s struggled to find a use. While I was a first year undergraduate student (back in 2007) at the University of Leicester as part of one of our modules we were split into groups and asked to come up with proposals for ways of using and maintaining Leicester’s historic buildings. My group was given the great hall; I don’t entirely recall what we suggested (probably a museum of some sort) though I do recall that one of our early ideas was to turn it into a venue along the lines of Laser Quest!
There are two highly encouraging aspects of the news. First of all is that the hall will be open to the public. This has been a rarity in the recent past. Secondly, De Montfort University will restore the building, helping to preserve a structure while regularly appears on English Heritage’s At Risk register.
Good news all round.
For more on Leicester Castle Levi Fox’s history of the site, written in the 1940s, is a good place to start.